The technical evolution is working, and it's positive
The evolution of our coaching education and development process is at an interesting, and perhaps significant, juncture.
Berti Mariani is in his mid-50s and hasn't coached professionally for the last 18 years. But there he is, notebook at the ready, listening attentively, as Dutch conditioning expert Raymond Verheijen takes centre stage at the AIS theatrette. Some of the cream of our coaching profession are in Canberra to sit for the coveted A License and/or Professional Licence they will soon need if they wish to continue working in the industry.
Mariani hasn't been in the dugout since he was sacked by Wollongong Wolves in 1995, but that doesn't mean he's given up. It might seem he's wasting his time, but Mariani was regarded as years ahead of his time when he won back-to-back championships with Marconi Stallions (1988 and 1989). Perhaps it's more a case of time catching up with Mariani. Sports science, nutrition, psychology and certain conditioning exercises were rare in his day. Nowadays they're woven into the coaching manual. ''I love the fact that some of this stuff matters,'' he says.
Mariani, as you've probably guessed, is a fan of the rationale, and the thrust, of the national curriculum first unveiled in 2009, and about to be updated. That doesn't mean, however, he agrees with every part of the blueprint. Which - based on the evidence of a number of conversations with those who recently spent a week in Canberra sitting for their elite qualifications - seems to be the prevailing view.
The evolution of our coaching education and development process is at an interesting, and perhaps significant, juncture. Never was this more evident than in Canberra recently, where attitudes and opinions washed up against each other like a high tide against a seawall. Eventually, the tide of opinion will find its own level, but in the meantime it's fascinating to observe.
On the surface, it seems the curriculum offers little flexibility. Certainly the FFA technical staff entrusted with administering and expounding it - notably Han Berger, Kelly Cross, Raymond Verheijen, Rob Sherman, Tony Franken and Dean May - continue to push a tough line in their drive to upskill our coaching fraternity.
Verheijen is a particularly prominent example. Wearing a blue polo shirt, jeans and trainers may suggest a relaxed approach. It's anything but. The notoriously outspoken Dutchman is adversarial, provocative, challenging, and sometimes plain aggressive as he addresses an audience which includes some of the most opinionated people in our game.
Among those in attendance are John Kosmina, Mariani, Craig Foster, Tony Popovic, Frank Farina, Ante Milicic, Shane Rufer, Kevin Muscat, Mark Rudan, Kurt Reynolds, Kenny Lowe, Gerry Gomez, Phil Moss, Mehmet Durakovic, Melissa Barbieri, Milan Blagojevic, Karl Dodd, Andrew Clark, Steve Corica, Patrick Zwaanswijk, Jamie Harnwell, Ross Aloisi, Mark Jones, Lawrie McKinna, Gary Phillips and Spencer Prior.
Take a long look at the list. Shrinking violets? Not likely.
But this same crowd barely raises a peep as Verheijen goes through his power point presentations on 'underloading'. You're not even allowed out for a toilet break.
It's a new message, delivered in an old school style. Verheijen's questions from the stage, many rhetorical, are met with mumbled answers from those willing to speak up. Verheijen introduces the subject of GPS monitors, and then remarks: 'GPS is only for people who don't have a brain'. Warming to the theme, he discusses at length the philisophical differences between 'strength' and conditioning, and football conditioning. ''I don't like this word (strength),'' he says, daring someone to challenge his views. 'C'mon, c'mon, where are the fitness clowns?'' he bellows.
It's tough, and abrasive, and some in the audience murmur their disapproval. In whispered tones, of course. Later, in a coffee break, some talk about a lack of respect. Either way, the process is doing what it's meant to do. Spark debate, challenge opinions, remove people from their comfort zones. It's what Han Berger has been determined to do ever since he took charge of our technical evolution. It's working, and it's positive.
Yet it's not simply rote learning, whatever it may seem. My sense is those who walk away with the necessary qualifications won't be slavishly implementing the tactical approach, or conditioning practices, of the curriculum. If Manchester United, for instance, can have a recovery session on the beach, don't be surprised if a number of Hyundai A-League clubs continue the practice - curriculum or not.
It's wonderful that the education process is making our elite coaches think harder, and deeper, about everything they do. But they've still got a mind of their own, and will make their own decisions. Which is how it should be.
Remove the egos, and the truth is everyone is fundamentally on the same page. Australia is not virgin territory for coach education - we've been doing it in an organised fashion since Eric Worthington arrived from England in 1975. But no one's disputing we need to do it better, smarter, and with a lot more purpose if we want to develop the players we need to progress in the modern game.
If Daniel de Silva is the first prototype to emerge from the latest technical revolution, then we're definitely on the right track. If Mariani demonstrates a new-found willingness to bring past generations back into the fold, even better.
Coach education is a notoriously explosive subject, but my impression is everyone is being a lot more adult about things these days. I like what I see.